About Fear and Panic

by Mary Brandl
(Information on this subject also appears in Scenarios in Self-Defense, co-authored by Mary Brandl and Anita Bendickson. See Videos & Books

The human "fight or flight" response is instinctive. It can help you if you use it constructively. When we feel fear, it is our body responding to conscious or unconscious signals that something is 'off' or 'wrong' in a situation. The blood rushes out of the stomach, creating that "butterfly" sensation (the body has decided that digestion is NOT a priority at this moment). The body releases adrenaline and the heart starts pounding faster trying to get oxygen out to the limbs. All of this is an "emergency gear" the body can slip into in an emergency. People are often able to perform feats in this physical state that they would not be capable of under regular/normal circumstances.

Panic, on the other hand, is more similar to our startle response. The response of a rabbit that is startled in the underbrush is usually to be very still. Since in most cases the rabbit's coat blends in with the surroundings, this is a good ploy. As long as the predator hasn't picked up the rabbit's scent, the rabbit is better off remaining still, so the predator won't pick up on movement. We human beings have a startle response too. Imagine if someone tapped you on the shoulder right now and you hadn't known someone was there. Most of us would jump, and part of that jump is sucking in air suddenly. In panic we are tending to hold most of that 'startled' air inside and restrict our own breathing. Without oxygen, thinking and acting become more difficult. Panic is anything but helpful. It can keep you from thinking straight, considering your options, and acting decisively.

You can avoid being immobilized by panic by using these two techniques:

  1. Breathe -- If you start to feel afraid, take a couple of deep breaths. This will help you relax enough so that you can think and move. Locating your diaphragm can help you in this process. Put your hands on the front of your body between your ribs and your hip bones and push down with these muscles. Now that you have located this area, remove your hands and again push down. Using these lower muscles in this way can actually help relax the upper body muscles in your chest and throat area and thus help get your adrenaline and oxygen working for you. Using your breath from this area can also help you use your voice more easily.; While screaming is loud and gets attention, it tends to originate in the upper chest and throat area--the same area which gets tensed up when you get startled! This is the main reason it is difficult to get a scream out in a crisis. Using the lower abdomen muscles to yell or shout is easier, because it is based on exhaling to create the sound. Working from this area has the advantage of helping you release or bypass the startle reflex.

  2. Visualize -- Try to decide on several preferred options in advance. Visualize how you might escape from different types of situations. One reason we associate panic with self-defense situations, is that we rarely get usable, practical information on self-defense from what we see on movies, the news, etc.; If the main options we see involve jumping in the air, spinning around three times and kicking an assailant in the head, or keeping bazookas in the car trunk, it is no wonder we feel helpless and without choices in an emergency. Even in some cases involving a weapon, it has been possible for people to escape safely without having to resort to physical resistance. But in these cases, or if physical resistance is required, you will be able to respond faster if you have considered some possibilities ahead of time.

This is not about paranoid thinking, it is about PREPARED thinking. Why walk down the street worrying about an attack but with no clear plans? Thinking ahead means you have a few plans. Having some plans helps you to relax and avoid paranoia, since you have resources at your disposal in case of a crisis.

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